By Carl Giavanti, Carl Giavanti Consulting
“Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers” is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. We hope you’ll discover more about the wine writers you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories, review our wines and potentially provide media coverage. You can do this by learning their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is part of an ongoing series that will be featured monthly by Wine Industry Network.
Elizabeth Schneider is author of “Wine for Normal People: A Guide for Real People who Like Wine but not the Snobbery that Goes with It (Chronicle 2019),” which was acclaimed by Oprah Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Post and more. For a decade, she has been the host of the podcast “Wine for Normal People”, acclaimed by the New York Times, Wine Enthusiast, and the Drinks Business and more. Elizabeth speaks at events all over the world, teaches live online classes to people worldwide through her online wine school, now in its 6th year. Elizabeth is known for a refreshing no nonsense, plain English, yet kind approach that is so rare in the world of wine. www.winefornormalpeople.com
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
Right after I graduated from Wesleyan University (CT), I moved to Boston and worked for Reebok and then in hi-tech. I tried to learn more about wine but the vibe in all the shops was so intimidating that I left feeling bad about myself after every visit. I decided to up my game and attend tastings, but those didn’t help much because, again, the intimidation factor was high.
I was living with my sister, an attorney and a pretty smart lady, and she was feeling the same despairing way about wine so we decided to take a wine class at the Boston Center for Adult Education. The guy who taught the class was named John Miller. He worked for a distributor and was super straightforward and open about wine. He took us on a weekly tour around the wine world and after tasting my first Trimbach Riesling, I knew that I wanted to do something with wine. Back then it was a lot harder to break in, so my plan was to get my MBA, work for a few years in CPG marketing and then either start my own wine bar or work for a winery somewhere. Things happened a little quicker – after completing my MBA at UNC- Chapel Hill, I wound up getting a job as a Brand Manager at a very large winery and moved to Northern California.
My four years in industrial wine were a bit harrowing – I often felt I could be marketing anything, not the thing for which I’d developed a passion (wine). I left a bit disillusioned and beaten down but shortly after that decided to go out on my own, starting a blog, then doing education events for corporations, and finally launching the thing for which I am most known, my podcast and book. Once I got to write about, study, and teach wine, I was finally in the place I knew I should be!
What are your primary story interests?
I cover the entire wine world and try to educate broadly on places, grapes, and wines. Most of my work is on grapes, winemaking, regions or general topics that will help educate wine drinkers. I occasionally invite guests on who can help highlight concepts and ideas that we have discussed in the show. Except for very iconic brands who have helped shape history, I don’t invite large wineries on the podcast. I want to support small wineries who make great wine but who can’t or don’t get covered as they should.
What are your primary palate preferences?
I am from New York and my parents only drank European wine so that’s definitely my orientation. It’s what I was first exposed to. I like restrained wines that reflect the land. I don’t like big oak or big fruit.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I live in Raleigh, North Carolina.
What haven’t you done, that you’d like to do?
Go to Australia and New Zealand to travel and taste wines! Such a far trip but I think I would learn so much!
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?
That wine is farming, that it is not unknowable, and that they need to study, drink a lot of great wines, and trust themselves rather blindly putting faith in a critic, a sommelier, or a wine shop employee. We are so confident in what food we prefer, we should be confident in what we like in wine too. It’s all too easy to get caught up in what other people say in wine. People need to know there is a lot of BS out there and how to cut through it.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
I think the key is to find new angles on stories or topics and then offer 100% candor. In the world of Wine for Normal People, there is no room for ulterior motives. I only write what I believe in, I only offer opinions if I actually care, and I try to research the hell out of everything as if it were an academic paper so I can backup what I say with numbers and facts. I am happy to correct things if there are factual mistakes, but I try to make sure that everything I put out there is as factual as can be.
Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?
Every 6 months I plan a podcast schedule with topics. They change all the time though! I write blogs only as they come up.
Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?
I am not an influencer but I am influential. I don’t take money for promotion and I don’t promote brands or organizations in return for swag or wine. I take money for speaking, teaching, and advertising. I rarely take wine samples, and generally it’s only if I know the brand and just want to expand on my knowledge so I can better speak about what they make. There’s no pay for play with me, and I think that is part of what being an “influencer” is these days.
That said, I can move the needle for brands and regions and I have been known to do shows and have things I discuss sell out as a result, which is so nice because it means people trust me. It’s for that reason that I don’t do any pay for play – I may be financially poorer for it, but I feel that sacrifices the trust I’ve built with my listeners and readers.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?
Don’t think about contacting a journalist without researching and delving into their work. Know their style, read more than just their 2 most recent articles. Don’t send out generic pitches: Those go directly into the garbage for me. Remember that even if someone is on your list or you think they can help you, not everyone should be pitched. For example, I make it very clear in everything I do that I don’t support large wineries (I run a twice annual event called “Underground Wine Events” promoting small wineries, and have a list on my site for my readers of all the wineries that manufacture mass wines), and yet I still receive pitches from large wineries. It makes me so frustrated. Do your homework.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?
Access to information and ease of booking interviews are the reasons I like to work with them, although I don’t do it very often because I work directly with small wineries only.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
I work 6 days a week (I have the Wine for Normal People online wine school and teach classes nearly every Saturday night!)! But when I have time off I spend it with my awesome husband and my two young, energetic, and very funny daughters. We love exploring Raleigh and hiking and kayaking around the beautiful state of North Carolina. When we used to be able to, we would head up to Charlottesville to taste wine in one of the most up and coming wine regions in the US!
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
I’ve had a few but I have to say that one of the best was after our first Underground Wine Event in DC. It was a sold-out event, such a great crowd with incredible enthusiasm for the small producers. After the event ended, the 15 small California wine producers, my business partner, Laura Perret Fontana and I, went outside on the balcony of the building at George Washington University, which had sweeping vistas of the Washington monument, the Capital, and surrounding areas. The sun was low, it was a gorgeous early November day, and we sat and enjoyed a job well done. Everyone tried each other’s wines. The beauty of the day, the relief of a successful event, and the comradery of us all being together was a powerful, and wonderful moment. I’ve had other great wines in beautiful places, but I loved that feeling of joy, humor, and connection. It was what wine is really all about!
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?
I’ll do the more unconventional route and give some whites with food! Alsace Pinot Gris and an onion, goat cheese tart is outstanding, Sancerre and chevre is perfection, and halibut with herbed butter and Châteauneuf du Pape blanc is heaven!
Why did you decide to write a book?
After my time in wine and learning about wine, I felt there was not a resource for people who wanted wine learning in plain English. The podcast and my very close relationship with my audience means that I understand the struggles of wine drinkers in a very profound way. I wanted to use that to help people.
Most of the wine primers that existed and do exist are written for aficionados. They are good for that audience (and for me when I am studying, frankly), but I am constantly thinking about the NORMAL wine person – someone who likes or even loves wine but has other pursuits and things in their lives as well. They don’t have the time, nor the inclination to peruse and try to decipher a huge book that has a lot of information for professionals that won’t help them learn a few things that will get them better wine. It took 5 years of research and writing to complete “Wine for Normal People” but I am very proud of it. It is written to cut through the BS in wine – using analogies that people can understand and explaining things in easy to grasp terms, but not dumbing things down. I was so clear about my audience that I didn’t submit it to many wine publications for review, mostly to lifestyle magazines, and it was very well received there. The book is actually now used as a text book for some universities with hospitality programs and I guest teach sessions for those folks. The world of wine writing is not just about the industry and I don’t write for the industry even though it does work for them too.
How long have you had a podcast?
In January, Wine for Normal People will celebrate 10 years as a show. We have more than 350 episodes and the show has reached millions of people around the world.
Read more stories in the series “Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers.”